Fiscal Cliff

12.06.12

Fiscal Cliff Countdown, Day 30: Senate Meets Dada

A month after the election, the Senate is a forum for performance art, CEOs are throwing money away—and Obama and Boehner appear stalled. Things aren’t looking good, writes Daniel Gross.

Fiscal cliff hostage situation. Day 30. It was a day for dada and futile symbolic gestures.

Jim DeMint, Republican senator from South Carolina, Tea Party favorite, scourge of the Washington establishment, up and quit his post—to become head of ... a Washington institution, the Heritage Foundation. Heritage, it will be recalled, helped come up with the idea of an individual mandate for health insurance many years ago. And so DeMint, an implacable foe of Obamacare, will now get paid to run the organization that helped incubate Obamacare.

In the Senate, which increasingly resembles a forum for performance art, Americans were given a lesson in civics. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in 2011 had proposed a solution to the warfare over the debt ceiling. Congress would pass a law that would let the president raise the debt ceiling on his own. Then Congress could vote to disapprove and stop him from raising the debt ceiling. But the president could then veto that measure, and the override attempt would fail. So, everybody would be happy: the president would get his debt, and Congress would get its outrage. Today, McConnell, in an effort to taunt Democrats in the Senate, introduced the measure and challenged the Senate to vote on it. He figured Democrats would think it was a bad idea. But when Democrats took him up on the offer and agreed to vote, McConnell decided it wasn’t a good idea after all. And so he filibustered the legislation he had just introduced.

The debt ceiling, of course, has precisely nothing to do with avoiding the fiscal cliff or tax reform. And President Obama, buttressed by his newly discovered spine, has essentially said as much. As he said Wednesday: “If Congress in any way suggests that they’re going to tie negotiations to debt-ceiling votes and take us to the brink of default once again as part of a budget negotiation—which, by the way, we had never done in our history until we did it last year—I will not play that game.” So in other words, the Senate spent the day arguing about a part of the fiscal cliff deal that the president says can’t be a part of the fiscal cliff deal. (#dada)

Meanwhile, in corporate America, preparations for the fiscal cliff continued. Chief executive officers have been thronging the Home Depot and Lowe’s, buying up the biggest shovels they can find. And they are putting the tools to work, shoveling cash out the door in the form of (lightly taxed until Jan. 1, 2013) dividends. Late Thursday, McGraw-Hill, the parent company of Standard & Poor’s, said it would pay out a special $2.50-per-share dividend (about $700 million) on Dec. 27. CEOs may be a little slow on the uptake, but they can clearly see that the current low rates on dividends are not going to survive the cliff.

In Washington, we are told, formal talks between the two parties that must make a deal—Obama and House Speaker John Boehner—resumed after a week of silence with a telephone call. Staff-level talks continued. Very little word leaked out. It could mean that they were doing nothing. But it could also mean that they are doing something. As Rick Klein of ABC News (@rickklein) tweeted: “Very litle news committed on #fiscalcliff today. which probably means the most productive day yet on negotiations.”

As the sun set on day 30 of the fiscal cliff hostage crisis, I went out into the front yard, scared off the deer, and tied a yellow ribbon around the old oak tree.